Out of the Picture

Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot

by Michael Fried
University of California Press, 249 pp., $11.50 (paper)

How much can we learn about the art of the past by reading about the attitudes of contemporaries to it? Though not much stressed, this is the first and among the most significant of the questions raised by Michael Fried’s book. Absorption and Theatricality is ostensibly devoted to a short period in the history of eighteenth-century French painting but it is in fact also concerned with far wider issues. We know very little about how the “general public” reacted to art exhibitions before the end of the nineteenth century, and the few comments we can overhear from a remoter past do not, in general, encourage confidence that many fresh insights are to be learned from them. Thus in 1775 a writer tells us that “adorable, heavenly, divine, prodigious, detestable, pitiful” were the most common adjectives used of the pictures on view at the Salon; two years later “frightening” (effrayante) became a fashionable word with which to praise a specially telling likeness. Anyone who attends private exhibitions today will recognize that after two centuries the vocabulary of art appreciation remains remarkably unchanged.

Art criticism can naturally yield more, and Fried is right to point out that historians have made much too little use of it except for the factual information (about the appearance of lost pictures, and so on) that it can sometimes be made to provide. On the whole modern historians have treated with neglect and contempt those contemporary critics who, by the taste of today, proved themselves to be “wrong” (about the Impressionists, for instance); while the few men of genius who have written about the art of their own times—Diderot, Goethe, Baudelaire, Ruskin—have been looked upon as too idiosyncratic to help us much in understanding the aims of the painters whom they discussed.

Fried sometimes runs the risk of ignoring this latter danger, but although, with the exception of Diderot, French art criticism of the eighteenth century is not of outstanding quality, he is surely right to insist that it deserves the very close, valuable, and informative study he gives of it for what it can tell us about the intentions (and hence also the failures and successes) of painters who are not always easy for us to appreciate or understand. And in fact whether Fried (himself a well-known critic) is right or wrong on this issue, it is absolutely essential for his thesis to rely extensively on the written word, for the pictures alone cannot give him the arguments he needs.

This is partly because it is in the nature of pictures to remain silent (or, at best, ambiguous) when interrogated by even the most persuasive of Marxists or structuralists or semiologists—or connoisseurs; and partly because—as Fried acknowledges—the qualities he is looking for in French art of the second half of the eighteenth century are to be found also in other schools and other periods. But there is a further problem, for—by making imaginative use of the literary evidence at his disposal—Fried is trying to demonstrate…

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